It’s bad enough that we are being subjected to relentless propaganda about how housing is just about to turn the corner and the state-Federal mortgage settlement is such a great deal for homeowners. In fact, as we’ve stressed, and bond investors such as Pimco have reiterated, the deal is above all a back door bailout of the banks. Bloomberg weighed in yesterday:
Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and three other banks that settled a nationwide probe of foreclosure practices this month will get a bonus from the deal: protection for $308 billion of home-equity loans they hold…
It’s “a gift to the banks, at investors’ expense,” said Goodman, a member of the Fixed Income Analysts Society’s Hall of Fame. “A proportionate write-down of the first and second represents a reversal of normal lien priority.”
But to add insult to injury, the chump public will be given
bread and circuses enforcement theater to distract it from the fact that the banks are getting a sweetheart deal.
The show is already on the road. The Financial Times tells us that Wells Fargo and Goldman have reported that they have received so-called Wells notices, which is an advanced warning that the SEC staff plans to file civil charges. SEC is pursing firms that it believes misrepresented the quality of loans that were bundled and sold as mortgage backed securities.
This all sounds great, right? Wrong. Take a look at your calendar.
The toxic phase of subprime issuance started in the late summer-early fall of 2005 and screeched to a halt in June 2007. But the statute of limitations for securities liability is five years. So the ONLY deals the SEC can pursue now are the last gasp transactions of March- June 2007, and on those, the clock is ticking. Those were particularly dreadful and no doubt would provide some colorful anecdotes, but who are we kidding? The SEC has sat on its hands until an election year need to Look Tough will lead to a filing of a few random lawsuits to rough up the usual suspects. But the reality is that the horses have left the barn and are now in the next county.
Contrast this with the flailing about on MF Global. From the New York Times, emphasis ours:
Federal authorities are struggling to find evidence to support a criminal case stemming from the collapse of MF Global, even after a federal grand jury in Chicago has issued subpoenas.
Investigators, unable to find a smoking gun amid thousands of e-mails and documents, increasingly suspect that chaos and poor risk control systems prompted the disappearance of more than $1 billion in customer money, according to several people involved in the case.
Have none of these people heard of Sarbanes Oxley? This sort of failure falls right in its crosshairs. As we wrote a year ago:
Contrary to prevailing propaganda, there is a fairly straightforward case that could be launched against the CEOs and CFOs of pretty much every US bank with major trading operations. I’ll call them “dealer banks” or “Wall Street firms” to distinguish them from very big but largely traditional commercial banks like US Bank.
Since Sarbanes Oxley became law in 2002, Sections 302, 404, and 906 of that act have required these executives to establish and maintain adequate systems of internal control within their companies. In addition, they must regularly test such controls to see that they are adequate and report their findings to shareholders (through SEC reports on Form 10-Q and 10-K) and their independent accountants. “Knowingly” making false section 906 certifications is subject to fines of up to $1 million and imprisonment of up to ten years; “willful” violators face fines of up to $5 million and jail time of up to 20 years.
The responsible officers must certify that, among other things, they:
(A) are responsible for establishing and maintaining internal controls;
(B) have designed such internal controls to ensure that material information relating to the issuer and its consolidated subsidiaries is made known to such officers by others within those entities, particularly during the period in which the periodic reports are being prepared;
(C) have evaluated the effectiveness of the issuer’s internal controls as of a date within 90 days prior to the report; and
(D) have presented in the report their conclusions about the effectiveness of their internal controls based on their evaluation as of that date;
These officers must also have disclosed to the issuer’s auditors and the audit committee of the board of directors (or persons fulfilling the equivalent function):
(A) all significant deficiencies in the design or operation of internal controls which could adversely affect the issuer’s ability to record, process, summarize, and report financial
data and have identified for the issuer’s auditors any material weaknesses in internal controls; and
(B) any fraud, whether or not material, that involves management or other employees who have a significant role in the issuer’s internal controls
The premise of this requirement was to give assurance to investors as to (i) the integrity of the company’s financial reports and (ii) there were no big risks that the company was taking that it had not disclosed to investors.
This section puts those signing the certifications, which is at a minimum the CEO and the CFO, on the hook for both the adequacy of internal controls around financial reporting (to be precise) and the accuracy of reporting to public investors about them. Internal controls for a bank with major trading operations would include financial reporting and risk management.
It’s almost certain that you can’t have an adequate system of internal controls if you all of a sudden drop multi-billion dollar loss bombs on investors out of nowhere. Banks are not supposed to gamble with depositors’ and investors’ money like an out-of-luck punter at a racetrack. It’s pretty clear many of the banks who went to the wall or had to be bailed out because they were too big to fail, and I’ll toss AIG in here as well, had no idea they were betting the farm every day with the risks they were taking.
The nice thing about Sarbox is a lower risk civil filing can lead directly to a criminal case on the same issues. And based solely on news reports, there seem to be at least two general routes that could be pursued with MF Global. The first is the abject risk management failure that got them in the mess in the first place, the infamous “repo to maturity” trade on short-term Italian government debt. The fact that this was Corzine’s trade, and that he levered it up, and had no apparent understanding that it would be subject to a collateral posting requirement if the price of the debt move against him by more than 5% is managerial incompetence. Either MF Global’s risk management systems were deficient (which means his Sarbox certifications were false) or he overrode them, making them deficient (the fact that he got rid of one manager who insisted on briefing the board about the trade and reduced the independence of his successor supports that idea).
Second is the customer funds that went poof. This has never never never happened to a broker dealer or commodities broker ex fraud. Even in Refco’s embezzlement, accounts were transferred to new firms without a hitch. The media has repeatedly discussed how the staff was not sure of what was happening in the panic to save the firm. I’m sorry, but other firms have faced liquidity crises and the resulting high trading volumes as customers closed out trades and accounts without “accidentally” pilfering customer funds (start with Bear, which went down in a mere ten days). A trading firm needs to be robust enough to handle market turmoil and panicked trading and unexpected calls for collateral, both from a balance sheet and systems standpoint; that should be obvious after September-Octover 2008.
If no one can make an argument for prosecution on deficient controls using Sarbox in a case this egregious, that’s because no one is trying very hard. And that is no surprise.